The other day I was chatting with a respected Indianapolis restaurateur, a man who has owned numerous successful establishments over the years. I asked him something I ask most chefs and proprietors these days: Was he sourcing any of his ingredients locally? He replied that he wasn't, because the kind of produce he needs to make his style of food doesn't grow in these parts.
His comment reminded me that, in spite of the huge strides the local movement has made over the past decade, and in spite of leaps in food quality and diversity across the culinary landscape, we are in all likelihood never going to be independent of essential ingredients grown and raised thousands of miles away and the carbon footprint which unfortunately accompanies them on their journey.
Although the diversification of our local food supply is unquestionably for the good, we are still a long way from anything approaching food security, though we live in the middle of one of the largest expanses of GMO corn and soybeans on the planet.
While the family farms which supply the bulk of organic and artisan meat and produce to our restaurants and farmers' markets work wonders within the confines of our short and occasionally hostile growing season, their output is realistically only available to those sufficiently affluent and mobile enough to obtain it.
Long gone are the old days of the unspoken "hundred mile rule," when most restaurants wouldn't touch anything that didn't come from at least a couple of hours away; the further removed and more exotic, the better. For the lucky minority who can now afford to eat locally, the advantages are numerous: The food is a hundred percent traceable, it's healthy, it's fresh and its purchase supports the local economy.
But what do we do in the winter, when the farmers' markets have closed, or during the rest of the year, when we fancy some responsibly-raised seafood or exotic fruits? It can be a problem.
For fish, the Monterrey Bay Aquarium's Seafood Watch is a good resource if you need to check up on the sustainability of a given species.
For produce, it's hard to really trust the large organic grocery stores, especially when the fruit and veggies are suspiciously big and shiny and uniform, not to mention ferociously expensive. Even the regular grocery stores are getting wise to our preferences, featuring sections offering "local" but entirely unexceptional fruit, co-opting the word but not the spirit or the meaning.
Recently I've been using an app on my phone called Buycott. It's very cool but also very depressing. Essentially you enter in all the things you want to avoid, which in my case includes GMOs and Monsanto, then scan the product's barcode if it has one.
Last week I scanned a bottle of "organic" juice I had purchased. The screen lit up like a Christmas tree. Not only was it not organic, but it contained GMOs. For two days it sat in the fridge until my taste for mango got the better of my conscience, and I drank it anyway.
Even scarier was the result when I scanned a box of baby formula. It turns out our four-month-old is being raised on genetically modified (but probably locally-grown) soy, a realization which should hardly come as a surprise, but it's a bit of a downer nevertheless.
At least by the time he's old enough to eat solid foods, green beans will be in season. Proper, responsibly-grown beans purchased at the farmer's market, of course.